The Celtic Tree of Life

The Celtic Tree of Life

May 17th 2022

Trees have been symbolic in nearly every religion and regional history since the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Celts were among the first. One of the oldest and most popular Celtic symbols is the Tree of Life or Crann Bethadh.
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Whenever the Celtic people started a new settlement, they were sure to leave an oak tree at its center if it had been cleared or to plant one there, if it had none previously. This tree they called Crann Bethadh which literally translates to “Feeding Tree”. The tree was a central meeting spot for town assemblies and provided food, warmth, shade, and shelter for animals and humans alike. This gave the oak tree a special life-giving quality and importance amongst a people who came to worship trees in general but particularly the Oak tree.

The importance of trees to Celts can be seen clearly in their legal code. Prior to colonization, Ireland was ruled by Brehon law which criminalized cutting down trees and shrubs, with different punishments depending on the species. The Oak tree was one of four tree species in the “Noble” group (along with Ash, Hazel, and Holly) and thus protected by a more harsh punishment if cut down or damaged.

Part of the rational for that punishment can be validated based on Celts beliefs about trees. The believed trees housed or sometimes were the embodiment of human ancestors and that all trees possessed special powers. They believed the roots reached to the depths of the earth and could transport you to the fairy realm or send your messages to the “Otherworld”. They believed the branches could reach into the heavens and bring prosperity to those who were near. They even believed that as a life force for the village, if an enemies Crann Bethadh were cut down the enemy would be powerless in battle and easily defeated. With such beliefs, it is no wonder trees and their powers were protected.

Today, the Tree of Life in Celtic jewelry, tattoos, and imagery has a variety of meanings and interpretations that would have held true in ancient Celtic times as well.

The extension of the roots and branches to the earth and sky have come to symbolize harmony and balance.

The seasonal changes of the tree are powerful reminders of renewal and rebirth throughout life.

The multigenerational lifespan of the oak tree and beliefs about its powers accounts for the symbolism of longevity, prosperity, endurance, and nobility.

The branches, trunk, and roots are said to represent the Trinity, three stages of life, and the passing of strength, wisdom, and knowledgethrough generations.

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